Wednesday, March 19, 2008

How to use this blog

Blog posts are in reverse chronological order, so in order to follow the story from scratch you have to find the beginning of the story line. To do that, use the date links in the right-hand sidebar. There are two major stories in this blog to date: the first, starting in 2005, documents my first trip to Antarctica and New Zealand, while the second, starting in 2008, is about the most recent trip.

The 2005/2006 posts have a lot more information about McMurdo, with pictures of equipment and the environs. The recent posts follow my 2008 work assignment more. There are a couple posts about people I met there (a start at making a series of portraits of some of the many people that McMurdo tick that never really got of the ground).

You can comment on the various links by using the comment link at the bottom of each post. I am pretty sure that you can make an anonymous post (but not 100% sure), if you just work at it. Certainly a google account works if you must sign in. I like comments - your reactions help me tune the next posts and let me know someone actually reads this stuff!

Thanks for following my exploits! I hope you enjoyed it, and maybe learned something in the process.

Three weeks in New Zealand

I have been back in the US of A for about two weeks now. The first week back I caught up on job paperwork, and this past week I was out of town again for a meeting and working on detector fabrication at Indiana University. So this is about the first chance I have had to catch up. Here goes....

I met my father as scheduled and off we went. New Zealand is easy to be a tourist in. Accomodations range from hotels (similar to what you expect in the US) to hostels. My favorite is the backpacker's, which typically has bunk rooms and shared bath and kitchen facilities. They are clean and comfortable, and run about $30/person/night in a twin; less if you get a bunk in a dorm room. We saved money by making use of the kitchen facilities often.

From Christchurch we made a beeline to Te Anau, where we started the Routeburn Track, meeting Hazel and Ted (NKU friends), and hiking the trail from the west side to east side. The Routeburn Track is ranked as one of the top 10 trails in the world, and now that I have been on it I can see why. Each day was completely different. The first day was through rain forest heavy with red beech. The second day was spent above the treeline, with expansive views and fabulous alpine walking. The third day was again through rain forest, but forest that was less rainy, and was dominated by a silver beech. The weather cooperated with us pretty well. It was temperamental, with some drizzling, especially the first day, and the mountaintops were often obscured by cloud, but our panicked preparations to slog through heavy rains were in vain - thank goodness! The facilities along the trail were topnotch. A series of huts (for which reservations were required) are along the trail which provide bunks and stoves and water. We only carried food, cooking gear, clothing, and sleeping gear, making for light packs. There was an option of a guided walk, in which one would only need to carry clothing, but the price was exhorbitant (~NZ$1500) for the three days/two nights on the Routeburn. We were fine just carrying our own gear.

After saying goodbye to Hazel and Ted, we worked our way back to pick up the car at Te Anau, and from there went to Milford Sound for a day. It is a spectacular place, with waterfalls cascading down the valley walls. It was, however, very touristy, and only bound to get worse, as New Zealand capitalizes on its reputation as a tourist-friendly place. After the day trip there, we moved on to Wanaka via Arrowtown, taking short hikes along the way. In the one day we traveled from Milford Sound to Wanaka we passed from rain forest to near desert. The area around Wanaka reminded me of northern Arizona - dry and mountainous, with clear skies and trees only in the creek and riverbeds. We hiked up to the Rob Roy glacier in the mountains near Wanaka, and were lucky enough to see an ice fall as part of the glacier performing its summer melting act.

From Wanaka we traveled back across the mountains to Haast, and stayed along the beach in sandfly country. I had not believed that the sandflies were any big deal really based on my experience to that point. We were not badly plagued by them. They were easy to kill, and were repelled by deet. However, I learned that it is not the original bite of the sandfly that is annoying, but how that bite develops over the next few days. It gets extremely itchy, and any scratching makes it inflame to be even worse. Letting clothes rub the bite irritates it. To make matters worse, the sandflies are sneaky, and crawl into moderately inaccessible spots (up your sleeves, under your socks) before they bite, which means that you end up with bites in tender places whcih are easily irritated by clothing. To make a long story short, I now completely believe the New Zealand claim that the West Coast would be more thickly settled were it not for sandflies.

Haast was just a stopping point on our way up to the two famous West Coast glaciers, Fox and Franz Joseph. These two glaciers are the only places on the world where a glacier dips down into a rain forest. On our first afternoon we hiked to the bottom of each of these glaciers, and a good thing that was, too, since at this point the rain started. New Zealand was catching the tail end of a tropical storm. The next morning we went down to the coast to try to find a seal colony. The rain was less at the coast (but still wet). Sadly, we were not successful at finding any seals. The sea was very rough due to the storm. Still, the hike was quite nice, leading us along beach, through marsh, and through beech stands.

Heading north from there, we chased the last clouds of the storm as it dissipated up to Pancake Rocks, a spectacular rock formation at the edge of the sea featuring blow holes and weka birds. We spent the night in Greymouth at the Noah's Ark Backpackers (highly recommended), taking time to tour the Monteith's brewery. The next day we set our sights on Dunedin, and started the trip by driving over Arthur's Pass towards Christchurch. We had very rainy weather, and did not get out of the rain until past the divide at the Pass itself. On the way out of the mountains we stopped at some very interesting limestone formations called Castle Hill, and kept driving until we reached Oamaru, just a couple hours north of Dunedin. We stayed the night there, and on the way down to Dunedin the next morning stopped at Moeraki Boulders and the town of Moeraki. These spherical concretions are fun to see and climb on, and are now a big tourist draw on the east coast road. While in Moeraki, we took a hike in an area that was supposedly good to find yellow-eyed penguins in. We were successful! We got a really great close-up view of two penguins right along the trail as they worked their way up to their nest from the sea. There are only about 4000 yellow-eyed penguins left, so it was a real treat to see some.

We spent two days in Dunedin and the Otago peninsula. Out on the peninsula we saw Royal Albatross and a variety of shag (cormorants). Back in town, we found a pretty good beer (Emerson's) and enjoyed it in the evenings. Upon our return to Christchurch, we found the bar that had the most Emerson's pulls, and made it our home away from home. Interestingly, Richard Emerson himself, owner and brewer, showed up at this bar for a visit, and we chatted about various good beers in NZ and the US.

In the end we drove over 2000 miles while staying inthe southern half of the South Island. I ate more cheese and sausage for lunch than I want to see in a long time. We discovered good New Zealand beer, and saw so much scenery that our computer hard drives are chock full of scenery shots.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Second Addendum

I am comfortably ensconced in my home away from home, the Devon B&B, for the final night before the adventure begins. There was a day of rain, so I did not go out to Lyttleton Harbor, but instead stayed in town and explored the marvelous Hagley Botanical Gardens here. I'll share lots of photos of things that caught my eye. Bugs in particular were new again.
Hopefully there will be no problems and everything will fall into place. The weather for our Routeburn hike this weekend is predicted to be cold and wet, which sounds mighty unpleasant. I can only hope that this is one of the times when the weather man gets it wrong.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

First Addendum

I am sitting in a B&B at about 10PM on Sunday night after my first full day back in civilization. I visited the botanical gardens here in Christchurch, which are quite spectacular, and stopped to smell ALL the roses, which took a little time. I got a Starbuck's coffee. Twice. I made friends with a (very friendly, wet-tongued) dog. It's amazing and puzzling to me that cats and dogs are among the things I found myself missing most down there.

Tomorrow is my "work day," during which I will try to make a car reservation, plan a route down to the trailhead, buy some small amount of food, and make lodging reservations. Hopefully there will still be time to expore the nearby port town of Littleton, but if not, there is always Tuesday.

Keep those comments coming. Don't be shy! I like to see that someone actually reads this.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

That's all folks

Tomorrow morning I leave McMurdo on an LC130 cargo plane. I am one of 40 or so passengers on the turboprop. The flight time is approximately 8 hours. This is longer and much less comfortable than the C17 jet (5 hours), but on the other hand I would not be getting out were it not for this flight. Also, the jet is often delayed (as it is today) and does not get back into Christchurch until after midnight sometimes. The LC130 will get in around late afternoon and I should be able to have a relaxing late dinner somewhere. The next few days I will spend reorganizing the amazing amount of stuff I find myself in possession of (I am allowed 75 lbs and I checked only to find I have hit that and still have a few clothing items to pack yet), and exporing rental cars, places to go, organizing food for the hike on the Routeburn, etc.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008


I came up with a few sayings this year, and in keeping with the previous blog of two years ago, I'll share my favorites.

  1. "Recovery is for the young." Oh, my aching joints.

  2. "My eyes may be bigger than my stomach, but my stomach seems up to the challenge." When an inexhaustible food supply presents itself to you, it is hard to know when to quit. Especially when the message here is that of an Italian grandmother: "Eat, you're so skinny! You need these calories to keep warm! Have some more!"

  3. "No dessert should go untried." My compliments to the excellent dessert chef this year. He also does yoga. The bread chef was also quite good.
  4. From someone else: "Memories of Antarctica are always bittersweet." Everyone wishes they could have done that one more thing, gotten to know that other person better, seen more wildlife, or whatever, but are grateful for the friends they made, the good times, etc.
  5. On my inability to sleep in past 7AM, no matter what time I went to bed: "Apparently, I have reached the time of life at which the habits of the body are more powerful than its needs." Perpetual light, perpetual wakefulness.

Vessel unloading

The cargo vessel has arrived at McMurdo, and the station has stopped everything but vessel operations. No bars are open, no alcohol sales allowed, very restricted store hours, no shuttles, no Sunday brunch... no fun in general allowed. Unloading and reloading takes about a week, but I am leaving Saturday, so will miss most of it.

Every available space is being used for storage. Sea containers are unloaded from the ship, trucked around the station to locations near where the materials they contain will be stored, unloaded, then reloaded with materials (mostly waste) that goes back to the States. The space between the dorms and the galley is fenced off. What used to be a short walk from my room to the galley now requires a long detour.

In just a few minutes an annular eclipse begins. I have heard the ceverage will be about 80%, which is pretty good. The Beaker types here are excited about it, but I have my doubts we will see much, since when I just checked it was partly cloudy and the sun was obscured. But that could change quickly, so I will pay attention. I will try to take some pictures, but they will probably just be overexposed where the sun is shining, even in eclipse.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

All over but the shouting

We finished up this morning loading the sea crates. We sent absolutely everything back, including the trash from the instrument. There are no landfills in Antarctica anymore.

We started with what you saw in the earlier post in the plane and on the ice, brought it into the hangar (to the left), packed it more carefully, and then filled the crate. You can see the result below.

Recovery is hard on an instrument. The parts are fragile, and the handling is rough. The instrument was essentially undamaged at the landing site, even after getting dismantled (except for all the cut cables), but now I noticed several parts are worse for the trip in the plane and in the truck back to the hangar. Two TCD light guides are broken in their middles, and I noticed one TCD PMT was smashed. That all happened post-dismantling. My rule of thumb for recovery is (1) don't make it heavy, because if it is, people have to "gorilla" it to get it to get it where they want it in the plane or truck or hangar, (2) make special holders for recovery, like for the calorimeter, which worked out well - only a few IFO lines pulled off, and those were while trying to disentangle cable during recovery, which we gave up on and cut when we saw that we were doing more harm than good.

Now the crates have been turned over to the shipping gurus here, and magic happens, and somehow the crates end up back in the States. All these goods get handled again, as the stuff gets unloaded and distributed to the various institutions from which it came. And next year it all happens again.

Meanwhile, I have a few days of waiting before I catch a plane out of here. The room and board are a good price. There is moderate entertainment. I have a bit of regular work to do. So I won't get bored. We'll have a mild celebration of sorts. Yoann leaves on tomorrow's plane (he had such confidence in our finishing on time that he never changed his reservation from the 5th) while Terri and I are scheduled for the 11th, a week away. After that, I will tour NZ a bit, and get back to Cincinnati on March 1 or so.

Friday, February 01, 2008

Everything is in

We received the final few pieces of CREAM today via a Twin Otter on its way back from Siple Dome. The passengers were generous enough to help the pilots load the remaning bits. We just showed up at the airpoprt and offloaded it into our truck.

We have started the packing process and will load the sea containers in the next day or two. They should both be in the shipping pipeline early this coming week.

Miracles Can Happen

It seems that our day finally came, and that we only needed one! I was surprised that we went out, considering that the sky was very grey. During the flight there was a white out. I could not discern ice from sky. There was no horizon. Was that ice or ground fog below me? Fortunately our pilots (after a little searching) were able to find the instrument and land. (More on these spectacular couple of pilots later.) The weather continued to be poor. In fact, during recovery it started to snow a couple times, although it never amounted to much. It just covered the tools a bit and made small things hard to find. The temperature was -13C (9F), and a slight wind was blowing that carried enough wind chill to make cheeks really burn.

We worked in pairs. Terri and Yoann tackled the palette boxes on the priority list. Larry and I began the process of disassembly with the goal of reaching the SCD. This worked very well, and four people was the right number for an instrument like CREAM, which needed a lot of unscrewing and had numerous parts, many of them quite heavy. We looked for visual evidence of the S3/CVD failure but did not find anything.

There were some interesting moments during recovery. Once the TCD paddles were removed, Larry and I were faced with the wall of the TCD support structure. After removing the outrigger supports and numerous bolts, the thing would not budge. Tolerances were so tight that we could not slide it out. After nearly half an hour of beating on the thing, we got out the saws-all and cut a mounting bracket. From then on things went much better for a while. The CherCam was a challenge because of its weight and tight fit, but its removal went very smoothly once we realized the support brackets were easily dismountable from the frame. Once it was out, uprighting the palette was trivial. We then proceeded to remove the framing so that we could easily remove the SCD and everything below it. The cross members on top were cut, but nothing else (except the afore-mentioned bracket).

The new method of calorimeter removal with the trays was challenging but very effective. There were a few design issues that made for trouble. The very small flathead screws were apparently RTVed in and a couple heads were stripped during removal, so the cover had to pried off around them. The 3.5 inch long screws did not stand up enough to remove them after unscrewing them and could not be pulled out of the insets because the tolerance was very tight around the screwhead. But these were minor issues. It took just over an hour to prepare to remove the first layer (eg pulling off tape, which is very difficult with gloves and when the tape is cold, separating cookies, some of which had screws whose heads got stripped as well). However, once we got going, loading the trays took less than an hour. Overall I would give this new process a B+. A few minor design changes or perhaps even more details in the instructions would make it get an A+, if such is possible for moving 1000 lbs.

Meanwhile, the area around the detector looked like a tornado had blown through. Note the lack of a horizon in the photo above. We wrapped electronics boxes in ESD bags, and set the detectors out on blue foam or in the snow. Around 5PM Terri and Yoann worked with the pilots to load the plane. Terri identified the priority items so that they would go out that first day, and packed the electronics more carefully with bubble wrap. Did you know that tape does not stick at those low temperatures? It made for some challenging moments.

But in the end we were able to load about 80% of CREAM onto the plane. The pilots, Jim and Louis (who was French Canadian and spoke with Yoann in French, much to his delight) were absolutely fantastic. They were committed to getting as much back as they possibly could, and got out in the snow with us to help carry these behemoths over to the plane. They stayed an hour or two later than they probably were supposed to in order to get as much as possible. The pilot was a true professional when it came to tight loading. I put myself through college working in a moving company, where it was important to stack stuff from floor to ceiling tightly to get as much as possible in and to keep the load from shifting. Jim rivaled the best packers I worked with in those days.

All that is left for pickup today by planes on their way to or from other sites is two calorimeter trays, two bags of cables, the palette, the TCD support structure, the frame pieces, and a few odds and ends. The pile in the picture is all that is left.

Recovery is very hard on an instrument. While CREAM landed easily, and it appeared there was no damage to the science instruments, the subsequent handling takes a toll. I think you could count on one hand the number of cables that did not get cut. Consider that all the TCD paddles were removed with only one joint breaking. In the subsequent handling of about a dozen times every joint ended up broken. After removal from the instrument they sat in the snow. They were then handed into the plane, loaded, flown about, removed to the ground at Willie Field, loaded in our truck, hauled to LDB, and finally removed into the hanger. All the instruments were handled that many times. The heavier they are the harder it is to handle them. Only two people, maybe three, can really be in the Twin Otter loading. It is a very small cargo hold. Devices with brackets still on offer a hold for carriers. Imagine wrapping your feet in sopping wet towels, wrapping a quilt around your body, and wearing the biggest winter gloves you have owned, then walking through sand dunes carrying 300 pound delicate instruments. Not an easy task.

We will go through everything we brought back over the next couple of days. We'll examine the S3 and CVD parts more closely to see if we can find any reason for the failure. Everything will get packed up into the sea crate. After that, the instrument will arrive in Palestine around mid-March, and someone has to go down to pick up the pieces.

Meanwhile, life in McMurdo continues. The fuel ship has finished unloading and is preparing to leave. The Palmer is gone. Yesterday's off-continent flight practically emptied out my dorm, leaving it blissfully quiet. I was able to luxuriate in a hot shower this morning, instead of the usual tepid poor excuse for one I usually get. I had to turn in my skis, since for some reason the gear issue season is finished. I am not sure what I will do to entertain myself until my plane leaves once I am finished packing the sea crate. But I'll manage, because I can sleep in and can put my field gear away. I'll get to see the cargo ship arrival and unloading, which I understand is a really crazy time here, when looking both ways before you cross the street is essential in order not to get run over by forklifts shuttling goods and crates.